American Indian Casino Gambling: Issues of Tribal Sovereignty and Economic Development

By Antell, Judith; Blevins, Audie et al. | Journal of the Community Development Society, January 2000 | Go to article overview

American Indian Casino Gambling: Issues of Tribal Sovereignty and Economic Development


Antell, Judith, Blevins, Audie, Jensen, Katherine, Journal of the Community Development Society


ABSTRACT

Games of chance have been commonplace in the histories of American Indian peoples, but many tribal governments are now engaged in casino gambling as a part of the nationwide expansion of gambling for local economic development. Analysis of selected case examples, primarily from the West, reveals that tribes invest their profits in community infrastructure, social welfare projects, and economic diversification. Investments provide needed employment for tribal members and non-Indian residents of surrounding communities. Federal legislation requires states that allow gambling to develop compacts with tribal governments for the provision of gambling within those states. However, constitutional and case law regard tribal governments as sovereign in relation to state governments. This legal tension provides a source of continuing conflict in spite of Indian casino gaming's potential for community development.

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INTRODUCTION

Economic development has been a central and ongoing theme among American Indian nations for more than a century. Federal policy regarding American Indians has vacillated from the Dawes Act of 1887, designed to make Indians private land owners, to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), designed to aid tribal reconstruction efforts, and most recently to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Economic development has remained elusive for most Indian tribes despite substantial federal government support for their development efforts.

Central to most economic development efforts in the U.S. is the ability to attract public and private capital. Individual entrepreneurism and access to and control of private property are cornerstones of economic development (Cornell & Kalt, 1998). Within most schemes of economic development, individual risk taking, hard work, and economic savvy are rewarded with profits that provide additional incentives for reinvesting in the economic enterprise. Occasionally, local governments in the name of community development, use tax incentives, infrastructure construction, or outright money enticements to subsidize entrepreneurial efforts (Eisinger, 1988; Flora et al., 1992). Because of unique political, social, and spatial factors, many tribes have neither attracted capital nor created economic entrepreneurs (Cornell & Kalt, 1992). Ironically, over a century of evolving federal policy, the legal sovereignty of American Indian nations has created situations on many Indian reservations that discourage external capital investments. Collective land tenure, fractionated land holdings, and collective decision making, along with paternalistic federal oversight of trust lands, impede capital investments. The sovereign status of tribes means that tribal governments, tribal courts, or federal courts might handle disputes involving investments of private capital on reservations. All of these factors make potential investments highly insecure and result in overall lack of capital (Emig, 1997; Jorgensen, 1997). Consequently, tribes have relied heavily on U.S. federal funds for projects and, in many cases for advice, thereby fostering an atmosphere of dependency. Although there have been some Indian development successes, federally supported economic development projects have a poor track record. For example, Jorgensen (1997) notes that on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, 18 of 19 businesses started by the tribal government have failed over the past 20 years.

In noting the prevalent failure of economic development on U.S. Indian reservations, Cornell and Kalt (1998) cite several examples of reservation successes in the 1980s, including those of the Mississippi Choctaws (manufacturing), the White Mountain Apaches (timbering, skiing, and hunting), Salish and Kootenai of the Flathead Reservation (tourism, agriculture, and retail), and the Cochiti Pueblo (manufacturing). According to Cornell and Kalt (1998), the successes were built on (1) stable institutions and policies, (2) fair and effective dispute resolution, (3) separation of politics from business management, (4) a competent bureaucracy, and (5) appropriate cultural compatibility. …

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